C1958. HERBERT von KARAJAN Cond. Berlin Phil.: 'Tragic' Symphony #6 in a (Mahler). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1196, Live Performance, 13 May, 1978, Salzburg Festival. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“This release falls into the category of never too much of a good thing. St. Laurent Studio already did us a service by releasing a superb live Mahler Sixth under Karajan with the Berliners from May 1977, a year before this new version. The venue was the Théatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, which yielded almost studio-quality sound. This new performance comes from the Grosse Festspielhaus in Salzburg and sounds better, if anything. Once again we get superb playing, and Karajan, although a latecomer to Mahler, provides masterful conducting.
Since DG also released a widely admired studio recording from 1978, the issue of duplication necessarily arises. The first thing to note is that the Salzburg Festival performance is Karajan’s fastest Mahler Sixth - at 76 minutes it is the only one of the three that fits on one CD. The Paris reading takes 85 minutes, which represents a startling difference from a conductor known for his uncanny ability to conduct a piece several times with exactly the same timing. The biggest difference shows up in the first movement, which takes 22 minutes in Paris but only 16 minutes in Salzburg. Only part of the difference is explained by the absence of the exposition repeat in the first movement in Salzburg. The rest reflects an added sense of urgency. Because of his reputation for exceptional self-discipline (which musically worked both for and against him), one never thinks of Karajan grappling with indecision, and in the end he settled for the exposition repeat and a 22-minute first movement on the DG studio recording. At 82 minutes it could have fit on one CD, but then we’d miss Christa Ludwig’s wonderful set of the Rückert-Lieder under Karajan. Despite a glaring fluff by the first trumpet in an exposed high note in the first movement, I preferred the live Paris account for its extra sense of excitement, and here in Salzburg, the first movement, without the trumpet fluff, is an edge-of-your-seat performance, too.
The only requirement is your tolerance for speed. I am of mixed mind myself. The playing is thrilling at such an urgent pace, but the tragic and inexorable import of the music is foregone. Perhaps in Karajan’s mind he wanted to withhold tragedy until the finale. The Scherzo is placed before the Andante in the two inner movements, both done quite beautifully but basically the same in all three versions. Karajan avoids the extreme, even exhausting, emotionality of Klaus Tennstedt (I’m thinking of his riveting live account with the London Philharmonic on the orchestra’s house label, a one-of-a-kind experience), but this doesn’t detract from the extra drama provided by the concert setting here. The fabled Berlin strings are ravishing in the Andante, although I’d like to hear more sentimentality, which is the desired effect Mahler aims for in this bucolic dreamscape.
Anyone who harbors the misconception that Karajan’s style was glossy and oriented toward orchestral beauty at the expense of depth should hear the finale from Salzburg, where even Bernstein and Tennstedt are rivaled for emotional intensity. This is an instance where Karajan reached the ideal balance of astonishing virtuosity, beautiful sonority, and gripping drama. One oddity is that the two strokes of doom aren’t deep and resonant enough - they sound like sharp whaps instead.
Since there are some marked differences between the two live Sixths from St. Laurent Studio, personal taste will dictate which one you will prefer. However, at least one of them, impeccably remastered by Yves Saint-Laurent, should be experienced by any devoted Mahler collector. They add immensely to our conception of Karajan as a Mahler interpreter."
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE